For the now-old men who made The Sopranos, the show’s enduring – some would argue, rising – popularity is a source of bemusement.
“It’s shocking to me,” 76-year-old auteur David Chase said recently while publicising his movie prequel The Many Saints of Newark (out this week), “Gratifying, puzzling that this show, 15 years later, is relevant.”
Meanwhile on Talking Sopranos, a weekly podcast almost at the end of its epic run of revisiting all 86 episodes, hosts Steve Schirripa (Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri) and Michael Imperioli (Christopher “Chrissy” Moltisanti) scratch their heads regularly over the fact their fans are getting younger, not older – something cemented when the podcast itself won the popular vote at the prestigious Webby Awards earlier this year.
But let’s put some real stats on it. At the end of 2020, NOW TV reported a 122 per cent increase in views of The Sopranos in the UK, while in America HBO put the same figure at 200 per cent. Google reported three times as many searches for the show over lockdown than similar ‘prestige boxsets’ like The Wire. In the year the world stayed at home, The Sopranos was the sourdough baking - or perhaps the jokes about sourdough baking - of TV. Show favourites like Uncle Junior and Paulie Walnuts bobbling up in the slip stream of meme culture suggests this is not merely the result of Boomers on a nostalgia trip but, like the second coming of Friends, signs of approval from the supposedly tricky-to-please new generation of viewers.
On paper, this makes no sense at all. Anyone with a passing familiarity with The Sopranos – particularly those people, in fact – identify it as a ‘man show’. The gun in the logo; the scowling face of Tony Soprano; the violence and the bad leather jackets; the clear lineage it shares with The Godfather and Goodfellas. All of this marks The Sopranos out as a cultural artefact from a bygone era when the narratives of middle aged men were still the de facto focus of popular culture. One of its regular sets is a strip club, for heaven’s sake. What on earth could Gen Z see in that?
For what it’s worth, I can attribute – or at least track – my own gradual awakening to feminism to how I’ve interpreted The Sopranos during the five or six times I’ve watched it through since 2007. As a 15-year-old, it seemed in some ways a manual for manhood – not the killing part, obviously – but the toughness, the sense of loyalty and, above all, the ‘freedom of the outlaw’ Tony and his crew seemed to embody. Within the parameters of a normal, law-abiding life, I wanted to be like them.
With time and age, this perspective changed completely. Beneath the money and guns, The Sopranos is a critique of the miseries inflicted by traditional masculinity – not a celebration of it. The men have all the money and power in the world, and are all scared and sad. As Tony himself puts it: “I have the world by the balls, so why do I feel like a loser?” The final season opens with one character, Eugene Pontecovo, dying by suicide after the pressures of his faltering marriage and work life becomes unbearable. These tough men variously suffer from panic attacks, OCD, drug addiction and depression.
The language of mental health, now so prevalent in our culture, wasn’t used directly in the show because in a sense, it didn’t exist yet. But The Sopranos showed us what it means to suffer with the kind of issues we now – thank God – are finding ways to be open about. This honesty and authenticity is probably something Gen Z, tired of having ‘self care’ shoved down their throats by brands and influencers, respond to.
Central to this, of course, is the fact Tony himself – a character rendered immortal by the most complete acting performance in TV history by James Gandolfini – is in therapy. These pivotal scenes, though now something of a cliche as far as dramatic devices goes, hold up astonishingly well. The defensiveness, the vulnerability, the bartering, the transference and counter transference of rage and despair, the sheer boredom... anyone who has experienced the tumult of being ‘in analysis’ will understand why, at the time, The Sopranos won accolades from the American Psychoanalytic Association and why, to this day, it inspires others to go into therapy expecting hard work rather than instant miracles.
The show is not perfect. There is a moment I hate, in season one, when a stripper’s reaction to bad news is played for cheap comedy. But it evolved extremely quickly, and to think of The Sopranos as ignorant or unconcerned with its female characters is very wide of the mark. Women suffer terribly under the yoke of an extreme form of patriarchy, but the show doesn’t take a queasy pleasure in this like Game of Thrones, decentralise the issue somewhat like The Wire, or turn its female leads into antagonists like Breaking Bad.
Instead, the moral turmoil of ‘mob wife’ Carmella (a superb Edie Falco), the integrity and hubris of Doctor Melfi (Lorraine Braco) and the difficult coming-of-age of daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) are all portrayed with as much nuance if not more than the lives of the ‘fat mobsters’ they suffer under. The writers’ room was no picture-perfect scene of gender equality, but powerful voices like Diane Frolov, Robin Green and Toni Kalem had a huge hand in shaping the show. In a paradoxical way, the fact The Sopranos was the last big show made before the industry – and society’s – overdue reckoning with sexism probably worked in its favour: this was a team in simple pursuit of a good story, not anxious about good PR.
Chase did eventually settle on a typically cantankerous theory as to why his life’s great work is suddenly popular again with a new generation: “somebody said to me the other day, ‘Of course younger people like the show — it is sarcastic and nihilistic.’ That clicked for me. I’m sure they’re nihilistic, with good reason.” I’m not sure I agree entirely. The best-kept secret of The Sopranos is still that it’s funnier than any comedy: this alone helps keep its flame alive. But more deeply, it was art made for art’s sake, free of the self-consciousness of the social media age, a flawed but frequently sublime piece of storytelling grappling with the question of why we are here and what, if anything, can make us satisfied. When it comes to appreciating these things, generational divides simply don’t exist.
The Many Saints of Newark is in cinemas now